Margery Sharp Day – The Foolish Gentlewoman (1948)

For a moment he was left suspended between past and present, and well he knew which way his heart yearned. What he longed to return to was an orderly world. No one, in Mr. Brocken’s opinion, had tasted the sweetness of life who had not lived before 1914. What years those were for solid comfort!

 

22074996Recently widowed, fifty-five year old Isabel Massey Brocken has come back to her childhood home, Chipping Lodge. Nearby is the war-damaged remains of the much larger, Chipping Priory, where the Brocken family lived with their two sons, Simon and Mark. Ruth, Isabel’s sister, married and moved to New Zealand, while Isabel eventually married Mark. They had a long happy marriage and though childless, Isabel is close to Ruth’s son Humphrey who was educated in England, served in the war and is now staying with Isabel. Simon is also staying at Chipping Lodge while his war-damaged home is renovated. Completing this collection of family members and employees is Jacqueline Brown Isabel’s companion and Mrs. Poole and her 14-year old daughter, Greta, who Simon hired on as caretakers and cooks.

Humphrey and Jacky have struck up a relationship and value the peacefulness of Chipping Lodge after the chaos and stress of the war. As does Simon who hopes he can get through the next several months with his sister-in-law and the rest of the occupants of the house in peace and quiet. The Poole mother and daughter only want to do their jobs and be left alone. Order and respect permeate Chipping Lodge, though Sharp’s writing suggests a sense of unease.

We soon find Isabel holds a secret that will disrupt the balance of power at Chipping Lodge, a secret she has harbored since girlhood concerning a great wrong she committed against her cousin, Tilly Cuff. She has invited Miss Cuff to visit indefinitely and plans to make whatever amends she can. Simon remembers Tilly, but does not remember a special affection between her and Isabel and fears the disruption of a new person, a feeling shared by Humphrey. Both men have also observed that Isabel seems distracted and under some strain; a normally a patient woman, her temper has become thin and her tongue sharp.

When Isabel finally unburdens herself and what she hopes to do about it Simon and Humphrey are shocked and angry: Isabel wants to give all her money to Tilly out of guilt because of a childish misdeed she believes changed her life for the worse and deprived her of a home and family. It wasn’t until but a few weeks before that a half-heard phrase at church woke this guilt and the remedy to assuage it. She tells Simon what the preacher said,

It was a common error to suppose that the passage of time made a base action any less bad. “He meant, don’t you see, that because a thing happened a long time ago, it doesn’t make it any less base if it was base at the time.”

The sleeping guilt of the act has risen up inside her so that her only remedy is to confess to Tilly the deed and to give her all of her inheritance, including the house, which would go to Humphrey if she didn’t want it.

Once Tilly arrives, however, her abrasive and dictatorial behavior sets everyone on edge. Isabel promises Simon she won’t tell Tilly of her plans until she settles in, but even she sees how loathsome and impossible to bear Tilly has become. Simon tries to talk her out of her plans and though Isabel is aware of her disruption and admits she is very unlikable, that is still no reason to withhold what should come to her.

As time goes by, Tilly has encroached and wrestled her way into the personal and professional life of every person at Chipping Lodge and all is chaos and bad feelings. The Pooles have given notice, Jacky and Humphrey have separated, Simon stays late at the office and leaves early and Isabel has retreated into her own mind.

Something must give before all is lost, so Isabel plucks up the courage and tells Tilly that on the morning after one of their teenage parties, a certain Mr. Macgregor who was interested her wrote her a letter offering marriage. Isabel found it, read it and kept it from her, because she was in love with him herself. She knows this selfish act deprived Tilly of a future of happiness and security that she could never get back. But Isabel could make her future better by offering her money and a home.

It took Tilly three days to emerge from her bedroom and when she does she stuns them all by refusing Isabel’s offer. What she wants instead is for Isabel to keep everything and to give the house to Humphrey; she only wants a life with Isabel. Together they would live out their days in Bath, which Isabel loves, or anywhere else. After all of her years in service, where she went from one job to the next she only wants the stability of friendship and the security of a place to live in her old age. What Tilly is proposing surprises Isabel, since she expected, and was frankly looking forward to, a little suffering as penance. She questions Tilly until she is satisfied that Tilly’s need for stability is the best gift she can give her at this time in her life.

Jacky and Humphrey are horrified for Isabel, until a childhood friend of hers spells it out for them,

Isabel and Tilly have lived their lives for better or worse, “They’ll do very well together, and when Tilly upsets people, Isabel will calm them; and if Isabel is sick, Tilly will nurse her–and of course Isabel will nurse Tilly. I shouldn’t be surprised if they grew to be a very devoted pair.”

As Jacky, Humphrey, Isabel and Tilly make their separate ways out of the house, Simon is left with the Pooles, who continue to do their jobs quietly and unobtrusively. Simon is left with the ghosts of his past until Humphrey, if ever, returns and “could look forward to a period of perfect peace.”

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the setting. Almost every scene takes place in one location, Chipping Lodge. The characters develop, interact with each other, rant and rave and come to terms with their fate all in the same place. The character journey is really the thing here and it’s as if they are forced to face themselves in a locked room until they each find a way out.

This was a satisfying read and one that does make one question wrongs done in the past and how or should they be rectified. To bring up old wounds or not when starting anew might be a better step? While Tilly claims she was not in love with Macgregor, which satisfies Simon, Isabel knows a marriage proposal from anyone decent would have been better in her situation than the life she was eventually forced into.

I am happy to have been introduced to this author and look forward to reading more about her today.

If you are interested in other neglected women writers, Jane of Beyond Eden Rock has created a wonderful post called, A Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors that lists the dates of birth of 16 women writers in which to read, read about or celebrate. This makes the prospects of 2018 much better, in my opinion!

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My Edition
Title: The Foolish Gentlewoman
Author: Margery Sharp
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Device: Library binding
Year: 1948
Pages: 330
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles (1981)

Peacebreaksout

 

But no men got killed by the enemy, not one, on United States soil…They never got here. Do you realize what that saved the American psyche from? Think how we would have felt if we’d seen Germans parading down Fifth Avenue in New York, locking up President Roosevelt, pasting up orders on buildings telling what time we had to be home, what we couldn’t read, how much we’d be allowed to eat, if anything…What if you’d seen your house blow up, with your mother inside, and your baby sister, and your little dog.

 

This is a sequel to the young adult classic, A Separate Peace published in 1959, although it is a stand-alone book and does not require any knowledge of the first book.

The story takes place at Devon School, a prep school for boys in New Hampshire, just after WWII. The war factors into both books with profound effects on the character and aspirations of the boys. In A Separate Peace military service was inevitable due to the draft and affected how the boys interacted with each other and themselves, as well as their plans for the future. In Peace Breaks Out, the graduating class is the first in many years where the young men can look forward to a ’normal’ future. But they feel cheated that they aren’t going to be able to ‘do their part’ in fighting the bad guys ‘over there,’ so instead, they fight them at school.

The school becomes a microcosm of the fear the larger world feels in the aftermath of the war over Russian domination and Nazi sympathy. A cabal develops among the boys led by the editor of the school newspaper, Wexford, who plot against German apologist Hochschwender with disastrous results.

Pete Hallam, war hero and recent alum, who has come back to Devon school to teach history and physical education sees what is happening and tries to intervene. But suspicions on both sides are impossible to break through. When a stained glass window honoring the students who fought and died in the war is broken, the damage Wexford has done to Hochschwender’s character has dire consequences.

Knowles has a gift for enfolding the reader into the life of the school through seasonal changes which dictate the rhythm and activities of the boys. I found this to be true in the first book as well. Winter especially, when it is brutally cold gives the boys little time for physical activities, but a lot of time for scheming and plotting. And like the boys in this boarding school who are only able to leave with permission, we also are forced to stay and grapple with their fear, anger and suspicion of each other.

While there are some weak plot lines, Knowles has a gift for creating memorable characters and as in the first book, that aspect is strong in the second.

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My Edition:
Title: Peace Breaks Out
Author: John Knowles
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass market paperback
Year: 1981
Pages: 178

Challenges: TBR

A Domestic Tale as Wartime Propaganda: Mrs. Miniver (1939), Jan Struther


Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill

What effect can a book made up of the vignettes of simple family life have on a world in conflict? Can descriptions of dentist visits, a mother/daughter shopping spree in search of the perfect doll, Christmas stocking treasures, the almost sacred responsibility of finding the right engagement planner, and feeling the joys of Spring, turn apathetic nations into a call to arms? Apparently, one did.

First published as a series of columns in The Times (of London), the Minivers are a fictional middle class family living an idyllic life in Kent. Mrs. Miniver details her life as a wife and mother to architect Clem and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby. Her days, though simple and common, are observed with a depth of wisdom and poignancy that grows as the world’s crises encroach into her life. Through all her normal activities she is aware her world is in that liminal time between the peace and stability of ordinary daily life and the upheaval of the war to come.

When Mrs. Miniver goes doll shopping with her 12 year-old daughter she wonders whether the “modern unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months.” On the day the family must give up their old car, she feels its loss deeply because she is a “fool about inanimate objects…She did not pretend to herself that cars had souls or even minds…No, but a car, nowadays, was such an integral part of one’s life… that it had acquired at least the status of a room in one’s house. To part from it, whatever its fault, was to lose a familiar piece of background.” As the car is driven away, she cannot bear to watch and turns on the bath tap, lathers up her ears and begins to sing at the top of her lungs.

Though her days are spent like any middle class wife and mother in child rearing, lunches, teas and weekend parties to ascribe to her a stereotypical superficiality or ignorance of the larger world, would be a mistake. And while many of her activities are light-hearted and relatable, as when she obsesses over the design and feel of a new engagement planner and purchases her second choice only to return minutes later for the one she really wants, or the annual New Year’s Eve fortune telling party where liquid lead is dropped in water to harden as the oracle device, Mrs. Miniver notices little things and ponders their power and worthiness.

But the world’s problems do encroach and she is forced to come to terms with their effect. When she takes her niece to Switzerland and the rumblings of war are apparent she experiences a moment of great universality when a little boy takes her hand to show her his rock collection, which makes her think of her own son and his “c’lection” of rocks.  She wonders at the ridiculous war talk, “when little boys in all countries collect stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?”

As she passes a newsstand in her little village, she sees the word ‘JEWS’ plastered on the front page of the evening newspaper and winces. But she catches herself. She must not get to that point of not thinking about it. “To shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice…it was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.”

As the prospect of war with Germany looms closer she and her family must be fitted for gas masks. And by the end of the book, the Minivers are living in their home in the country and fostering 7 children from London families to safeguard against the bombs.

The Film

miniver

The power of the book and the release of the film version in 1942 cannot be underestimated. When the book was published in the United States in 1940, it topped the bestseller list and Jan Struther was sent on a lecture tour throughout the country.  President Roosevelt thought the film so important he ordered it rushed to theaters all over the US. As with Churchill, he believed it struck a chord and hastened America’s involvement in the war.

I have to admit I am a big fan of the film. And while it is very different from the book, its impact has been a lasting one garnering awards and placement on best and favorite movie lists. In 2009, The Library of Congress added it to its film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

Simple daily mundane routines. Family connections, community support and care for your neighbors. What the Allies fought for. What the Germans felt:

Mrs Miniver “shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Joseph Goebbels

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My Edition:
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Author: Jan Struther
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1942
Pages: 298
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name, Classics Club